Support BHQ
Buy books at Blithe House (in association with

A Different Ending : Cherry Smyth

She hadn’t expected me home from work so early.  She gave a start when I opened the door and her features twisted into that bad-boy-being-caught face I had begun to know, had begun by loving.  She was still in her gym-clothes, her hair unseen to.

The gun lay on the kitchen table.  Her mother’s gun, the one she’d kept in the cabin in the mountains to shoot at bears or intruders, the kind of gun from a western, two tones of brown, with a black muzzle, big for your hand.  

‘You said you’d hand it in,’ I said.

‘I will,’ she said, not moving.  Guilt and defiance fought for her tongue.  I was never sure which would win.  Nor was she.

‘Is it loaded?’


‘Open it up then.’

She did.  It was.  

We’d played with it once, one sunny morning up in the woods behind the cabin above Fallen Leaf Lake.  

She was wearing her khaki T-shirt that made her breasts a crest of muscle and her eyes green glass.  She looked good in clothes, more angular than when she was naked, her hips disguised.  And clothes needed her, the way she moved in them, the way the colour of her skin and the width of her shoulders set them off.  Sometimes when she was out, I would come upon a crumpled pair of jeans, a sweatshirt, on the bedroom floor and they choked me up.  They were nothing without her body, its temperature and form.  Their separation from her moved me inexplicably.  I would sniff at them but her smell had become too familiar for me to ever detect it.

She pinned a paper target to a pine tree and walked back towards me about thirty paces.  The air smelt of crushed thyme and figs, laced with pine. Early in the mornings you could smell the dampness of the lake.  

I held the gun as if it was atomic.  

She held out her hand.  

I gave it over. She dipped each bullet into the barrel and spun it round.  I don’t remember her showing me the safety catch.  Safety was never her strong point.

She stood with her feet apart and her right arm straightened.  

I wanted to kiss her, to come behind her and hold my arms around her waist to feel the kickback through her torso.  I was jealous of the attention the gun was getting, the way it completed her.  

She fired.  

The target gave a small shudder.  A blue jay burst from the trees.  My cunt clutched around a brief sharp pain, the kind I get when I see something squeamish, like a nerve tensing, one of the deepest, basic nerves that is the first to sense danger.  I’d been prepared for the noise.  So was the land.  It folded its silence over it as though it hadn’t happened.  I hadn’t been prepared for the excitement, wanting to see where the bullet had pierced. Waiting to see the hole.

She fired another five times, handed me the gun, went to retrieve her target and put up mine.

Her jaw was disappointed.  Two shots had missed; one had hit the paper and only three reached inside the target.

I made a wish as I raised the gun.

‘Keep your shoulders relaxed,’ she said. ‘And breathe.’

I thought of the pose of the warrior.  I balanced, inhaled and fired.  I became machine for that trigger moment.  I was driving a racing car using only one digit.  Acceleration shot up my arm.

The bullets hit the inner circle six times, one bull’s eye.

I wanted to whoop.  I did not think of the living tree until much later.  I did not think of myself as entering a world of darkness.  I’d fired a gun for first time and I was a natural.

‘You’re a good shot,’ she said.  She made it sound as though it was something given, not earned, something I couldn’t help.

I grinned.  I was cautious not to celebrate having a better aim than her. Then came something deeper; I realised that I’d discovered a power I would never use, like a knack for torture.  There was nothing sexy in it.

We walked back to the cabin to pack it up, close it down.  

Some years later when I saw a money tree by a secluded lake in a glen in County Cork, I thought of the tree I’d shot.  People had nicked the bark and inserted old black pennies into the slits.  The trunk had absorbed them almost totally and their smooth worn rims seemed to grow in a black fungus of wishes.  It was then that I thought about what had been started in the wounds of that pine tree.

That evening the wind changed and we had to put on clothes left there by her family, a flannel shirt, a cashmere cardigan.  Dressed as her parents, we made love in the big sprung bed that had belonged to her grandparents, and woke at first light, bound together in the hollow bodies had made in the mattress.  

The ground was covered in snow.  In June, in California.  There was something mournful about it.  The red-tipped flowers at the roadside looked unreal.  I found out later that they were called snow plants and only grew in the Sierra Nevada.  

We packed the truck with furniture and boxes and drove down to the city, with what was left of her childhood in the back.  

I took the gun and emptied out the bullets.  They were brass-tipped, sleek little bastards.

‘What the hell are you playing at?’ I said.  I had my hands on my hips.

‘I thought it best I shoot myself,’ she said.  Sometimes she spoke as her grandfather must have, like a gent of the twenties or thirties, politely archaic as if to stabilise her wildly contemporary feelings.  

‘Great,’ I said.

I couldn’t think what to do.  She hadn’t worked for two months.  We’d sold the Toyota pick-up and had almost no money left.  This was Manhattan where most people are one paycheque away from being on the street.  

‘You shouldn’t have made me come here,’ she said.

‘Sacramento was killing me,’ I said.

‘New York City’s killing me,’ she said.

‘Not if you get there first,’ I said.  I tossed the bullets into the trashcan.  They rattled against metal and sank.  ‘We’re taking this to the police.’

‘What if they ask questions?’

‘We tell the truth.’

‘This is the NYPD,’ she said.

‘It’s not “Law and Order”.  We’ve done nothing wrong.’

‘We could drop it in a trashcan in the street.’

‘And what if some loony gets hold of it?  No, I don’t think so.’  I was still standing.

‘Look, I grew up around guns, they don’t freak me out.’

‘So did I, and they do.’

‘I’m not ready,’ she said.

‘I don’t want the gun in this house.’

‘I feel so bad I can’t stand living any longer.’

‘I know, baby.  I’m sorry.’

Her eyes popped out tears.  I held her head.  This was a movie I had been in before.  How many more times could I stop the ending?

I should have taken the damn gun and thrown it into the East River.  I couldn’t act.  I’d absorbed the idea that it was her family’s property, was my lover’s necessary prop in her face-off with suicide, and that I was her audience.  Her brother had flung himself off the roof of a tall building, so, without the gun, perhaps she would too.  It was not my country and part of me slipped into the lawlessness of not belonging, not taking responsibility. I hid the gun in the cedar chest that held generations of ironed cloth and woollen blankets and smelt of sanctity.  We told no one about it, wasted good dollars on therapists.

Weeks passed.  The gun was not in the chest the next time I looked.  She was performing alone.  That scared me more.

One weekend near the end, there was a row about wrongness.  The wrong gesture, wrong tone, wrong touch.  I don’t recall the exact circumstances. We were both screaming.  It was a few days after Princess Diana’s death and something had given way in me.  I’d watched too much news, missed Europe and the life I wasn’t living.  I even missed the English as I watched their formality collapse, their unrestrained public grief, the streets becoming gardens.

‘Can’t you see life is precious, precarious?’ I was shouting in the small bedroom, the one with a brick-width window that took you inside a Rothko painting.  The room was a corridor in an apartment shaped like a train.  A railroad apartment, they call it.  

‘Go home then!’ she yelled.  

‘OK,’ I yelled back.  ‘I will.’

‘Go back to your safe little London life.’

I had the impulse to go to the wardrobe and haul down my suitcases: that familiar scene; the desperate bundling of clothes, like armfuls of feelings held and released into a box with a tight lid; but the cases were stored in the basement of the building, three flights down.  If I left the room, I would lose momentum.  

I should’ve left.

She scrabbled under the bed.  A dust bunny blew like a tiny ghost across the floor.  She pulled out the gun and held it to her head.

‘I’m going to shoot,’ she said, her eyes wildcat’s.

‘Please stop,’ I said.  ‘Don’t.’  I didn’t know if she’d found more bullets. Black-masked men of the IRA, UVF, UDA, INLA were in the room watching her, watching the gun.

‘I’m just gonna shoot.  I can’t stand my life.’

I approached her, my hand out.  The air trembled.  ‘Give me the gun.’  

In a movie, she’d have swung it at me.  She didn’t.  This was a slow burn episode, before the police arrived.  Could I call the police on my lover?  

‘Please, Lorna,’ I said.  ‘Come on.’

‘Back off,’ she shouted.  ‘I don’t need you.  You’re not the boss of me.  I hate you.  Fuck off.’

‘Go on, then, do it.  If that’s what you want.’  For an instant, I wished I could’ve pulled the trigger, and what relief came with that wish. I didn’t care.  I wanted out of the Sensurround of screaming, wanted meaning to restore itself.  At least death would shift what we meant, change us in the way we’d relentlessly failed to. It was my first omission in love.

A moment later, like the swing of a pendulum, I was snatched back into compassion, bluffing like I’d never bluffed before. ‘Go ahead, get it over with,’ I said quietly.  ‘What’s stopping you?’  

Was that what she needed me for, to goad her into dying?  

But by playing death, I made her play life.  

She put down the gun.  

I turned away.

I got my keys and walked out of the apartment, down the stairs and on to 7th Avenue.  

I walked across Soho, skirting heaps of black garbage bags, to the Angelica.

I queued up with the Saturday matinee people, Manhattan people out doing a movie, under the blue and gold ceiling of the painted angel.  

I bought tickets for two films.  

Within half an hour I was sitting in the dark with strangers, nursing my murder.  

In the beam of projected light my mind floated up amongst the dust motes while my body remained in the dim, packed row where the speechless, undemanding warmth of the audience was sweet.  

I can remember only one of the movies.  It was about deafness and cruelty.  I was the savage corporate pig, then the mobile-mouthed, trusting maid.  I was the screenwriter writing a different ending.  

I stayed with a friend in a fifth-floor walk-up in the East Village that night.  I didn’t tell her the details and she didn’t ask.  That way I could keep the idea of my relationship as a refuge intact.  I could return.  If I said too much there would be no going back.  True friends don’t want too much truth.  

I think I went to the Met in the afternoon and walked counter-clockwise around many rooms, letting the hush hold me until something rolled through the blankness, taking me out of the building and into the subway, where I followed the F train downtown like an orange brushstroke.

Had she done it?  Was there a body folded over the kitchen table with a splurge of brains?

I can’t say what warmed me again.  At first it was curiosity, a flicker of adrenalin changing direction, altering my course.  

When I came up to the sky again, the pavement was panic.  I started to run and I ran into love, all of me wanting to take her in my arms, tuck her hard head under my chin, feel her heart beat.

I can’t explain this.  It was as if each fight gave birth to some hideous creature that forced us apart and then, after two days, I would forget the pain, remember the thing with life in it that needed to be fed.  I kept deciding to keep my heart open, to love what I’d created.  I had dedicated my whole self to it, like you dedicate a book to someone else’s memory.

I bought a bunch of flowers to signal the truce, to bring in spring more quickly.   She snatched them – pink and red gerberas – plucked off their petals and threw them at me.  

I caught them in my mouth.  

Another person, a former, stronger lover or the future robust fucker, would have laughed.  I couldn’t breathe.  The apartment was full of the smoke of burnt bacon and fast-sucked cigarettes.  I opened the window.  

She shut it.  

I went to bed, stuck in my earplugs and faced the wall.  I wore a red angora cardigan, tucking my fists up the sleeves.  I covered my nose with the smell of new wool.

At the time I was seeing a therapist on the Upper West Side.  She shared an office with my lover’s therapist.  I would sit on the oyster-grey chaise longue, fingering the fabric for my lover’s touch.  Together, they would fix us in the same room, on the same couch, eyes focused on the same tasteful figurines acquired from all over the world.  I told my therapist about the gun.  She failed to hide her shock.  

‘Has she ever threatened you with it?’

I sat there in my office dress, my neat low-heeled shoes.

No, never, I meant to say.  

‘Yes, she has,’ I said.  

My second omission.  

I knew she would speak of it to my lover’s therapist.  I knew she would feel she had to.  There are lines that are made to be crossed.  Tension accrues to borders.  I started it.  Stepping out of being beholden, being muzzled.  

It was the beginning of when I began to leave her.  

Three days later my lover came home and said, ‘I’ve gotten rid of the gun.’

‘How?’ I said.

‘My therapist is very smart.’

‘What happened?’ I said.

‘She brought it up.  Asked me to describe how far my suicidal thoughts went.  She guessed I had a gun.’

‘What did she say?’

‘She said she would dispose of it for me.’

‘Yes, she is good,’ I said.

‘I had to give it to someone who knew what to do with it,’ she said.

I said nothing.

That evening we watched the sunset blaze the skyscrapers of the city.  We may have held hands.  Perhaps she took me out to dinner at the little Italian off Washington Square, which reeked of garlic and baked porcini.  

The gun was gone.  I’d sacrificed the lover for the doctor.  I had given our therapists the power of the law, the power of seeing what we had broken in each other.  It wasn’t fixed.  Only temporarily mended.  

I separated into curds and whey.  She was the spider, sitting there on the settee.